Ash Barty weathered the storm that is Aryna Sabalenka by staying cool and battling into the Miami Open presented by Itaú semi-finals where she will meet Elina Svitolina, who got past Anastasija Sevastova in straight sets on Tuesday.
You can’t see me, but there’s a massive smile behind my mask. It’s always nice to come back somewhere we’re you’ve had good memories. This was one of my favourite weeks in my career a couple of years ago. It’s where I broke into the top 10 for the first time. Yeah, it’s a tournament that I just love coming back to. Ash Barty
Barty is the defending both her Miami title and her World No 1 ranking, which she will retain Ii she can reach the final here, ahead of Naomi Osaka, who can only overtake her only by winning the trophy.
While the amiable and relaxed Aussie might not be thinking too much about either, they must surely factor amongst her goals.
The top seed had her hands full with Sabalenka who, at 22-years old is two years younger than Barty and held a 3-2 head-to-head advantage, her win two years ago in Wuhan.
Barty had gone more than 14 months without facing a Top 10 player because she stayed at home during the pandemic but she beat Garbiñe Muguruza when she was ranked No 15 in the Yarra Valley Classic final and No 16 a year ago in Qatar.
In defeating the No 8th ranked Sabalenka in a rousing 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 match, skeptics need wonder no more.
“It was a brilliant match today,” Barty said afterward in her on-court interview. “It was certainly the best level I’ve played for a long time, and especially over a sustained period.”
Barty has now won 10 straight matches in Miami, going back to the 2019 title that makes her the defending champion, and she is 12-2 for 2021.
Serving at 2-3 in the first set, Barty was down triple-break point but won the game’s last 5 points.
Sabalenka, serving at 4-all, granted her first break point of the match, and promptly double-faulted, twice, missing by a good foot each.
After taking a close first set, Barty appeared to be on the brink of victory after grabbing a 3-1 lead in the second set tiebreak but the Belarusian staged a superb recovery to snatch the breaker 7-5 to force a decisive third set, rallying to win 6 of the last 7 points to suddenly level proceedings.
Barty regrouped in the decider, though, and when during the 6th game of the 3rd set, Sabalenka seemed to incur an upper body injury and was clearly in pain, she rammed home her advantage to complete a deserved win, winning the last 3 games of the match, and 12 of 13 points.
“Aryna really made me bring out my best stuff today,” Barty said. “She’s an exceptional competitor and someone who I respect so much on the court.
“She’s just got the game to make you really uncomfortable so it was about trying to hang in there as best I could today.”
Barty progressed to a last 4 meeting against Elina Svitolina of Ukraine with her 2 hour 16 minute win in the hot conditions.
She had been taken to 3 sets in the last 16 by Sabalenka’s compatriot, Victoria Azarenka, and had come through another testing challenge in a hard-fought quarter-final battle.
Despite a series of tight matches through the first week, 5 of the top 8 seeded players reached the quarter-finals: No 1 Barty, No 2 Osaka, No 5 Svitolina, No 7 Sabalenka and No 8 Bianca Andreescu.
Barty was pushed to match point in her first match, against Kristina Kucova, while Sabalenka faced two match points in her first outing, against Tsvetana Pironkova, demonstrating the depth of field in the women’s game these days.
Barty said after her 4th-round win over Victoria Azarenka that she still had not played her best tennis, but has now settled in and, on Tuesday, looked every inch a World No 1.
“You can’t see me, but there’s a massive smile behind my mask,” Barty said on the court. “It’s always nice to come back somewhere we’re you’ve had good memories.
“This was one of my favourite weeks in my career a couple of years ago. It’s where I broke into the top 10 for the first time.
“Yeah, it’s a tournament that I just love coming back to.”
Barty’s next opponent, No 5 seed Elina Svitolina broke new ground at the Miami Open on Tuesday night, beating Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova, 6-3 6-2, to reach the semi-finals at the event for the first time.
It was a far more straight-forward affair for the Ukrainian over the unseeded Sevastova, and she dominated the former World No 11 in just 69 minutes, improving her head-to-head record against the Latvian to 3-1 in the process.
“I’ve always wanted to play well here in Miami,” Svitolina said on-court after the match. “It’s one of the biggest tournaments and playing here is always amazing, so I’m really pleased with the performance tonight.
“I know that she’s a big fighter and she will try to come back, it doesn’t matter the score, so I was expecting a tough battle.
“In the end, I think I played really good throughout the match and I’m really happy with the way I finished it.”
After the pair traded breaks twice across the first 6 games, Svitolina ran off a string of 7 straight games from 3-3, saving break points in 2 holds over that span.
The two had previously gone the distance in each of their last two meetings, but Svitolina had no such designs on a hat trick, and although she lost one of two breaks from her 6-3, 4-0 cushion, she won 7 of the last 8 points to seal victory.
“I practiced with her many times. I played against her so many times. She always tries to build the point, tries to use her spinny forehand slice. She’s a tricky player to play against,” Svitolina added.
“So I had to really adjust my game to not rush so much, because if you rush against her you can make too many mistakes.”
In all, Svitolina struck 19 winners and was a near perfect 6-of-7 on converting her break points, winning nearly 70 percent of the points played on Sevastova’s serve.
Svitolina’s previous best effort in Miami was a quarter-final showing in 2018, and standing between the Ukrainian and a place in her first hardcourt final in 12 months is the top-seeded Aussie, against whom she owns a 5-1 head-to-head record.
“I know Ash for a long time and we’ve played many times before,” Svitolina said. “She’s No 1 and it’s an amazing achievement for her.
“She’s improved massively in the last three, four years and she’s been at the top of the women’s game. It’s going to be a challenging match, but I’m ready for it.”
The two last played in the last match of the 2019 season, where Barty was a 6-4 6-3 winner to take home the title at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
“I think we are both big fighters,” Svitolina added. “I think when you’re playing a really high-level player, you try to be extremely focused, more focused than anything else, because if you’re playing a big match like that, you’re not giving any free points and you are more on your toes.
“You’re trying to bring the best. So for sure, the match in Shenzhen was extremely tough for me after. I hate losing the [WTA] Finals, and especially Shenzhen, it’s a huge event. I wanted to defend my title [from 2018], so it was extremely tough for me to lose that one, and hopefully, you know, I can play better and get the revenge.”